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I was looking at some plane cockpits, and I wondered something. We see the F-4 Phantom's cockpit below:enter image description here

Obviously, very analog. Then, we entered a new era of cockpit design, where we had designs like this in the F/A-18E/F: enter image description here

Very nice. However, we improved the cockpits further. Below are the cockpits of the F-35:

enter image description here

My question is: How is the F-35's cockpit better than the F/A-18E/Fs, and why did we even make the improvement?

Also, the F-35 has 55 buttons on its HOTAS system. Why does it have so many HOTAS-bound buttons when earlier jets like the aforementioned Super Hornet have less?

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  • $\begingroup$ I don’t think it is that the display configuration is qualitatively better. rather, it’s more flexible. It allows that the software to present situation-specific information to the pilot better. Imagine a situation where I needed to correlate information from one of the FA18’s displays with another display in the opposite corner. A flexible display allows the software to present both pieces of information side by side… or better yet, do the correlation itself and only present the pilot with the already-analyzed data, presented as decision points at the right time. $\endgroup$
    – Max R
    Jan 8, 2023 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ In terms of buttons on the HOTAS, is this not answered by the very concept of leaving pilots hands in one place en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HOTAS? Also note that F-35 photo appears to be a ground based trainer so may not represent an actual F-35 instrument setup, suspect the panels left and right of the display will have more clutter in an actual aircraft so final result may be less different. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2023 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ Does the dashboard in your dads 1967 F-150 look the same as the dashboard in your 2023 Tesla? Both have a "steering wheel" and (mostly) the same pedals. But everything else is different. $\endgroup$
    – WPNSGuy
    Jan 8, 2023 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ There is important part of the F-35 instruments missing from that photo: the helmet-mounted display. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I get that the HMDS is absolutely insane. $\endgroup$
    – JustACoder
    Jan 9, 2023 at 23:40

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“My question is: How is the F-35's cockpit better than the F/A-18E/Fs, and why did we even make the improvement? Also, the F-35 has 55 buttons on its HOTAS system. Why does it have so many HOTAS-bound buttons when earlier jets like the aforementioned Super Hornet have less?”

You’re looking at the evolution of 60 years worth of cockpit design in these photographs, not to mention 60 years of evolution in fighter aircraft design, missions systems, and capabilities. One thing that is clearly visible in all of these photographs is the trending from the pilot as a stick and rudder guy to more of a weapon systems officer and a tactician. That is, cockpits and missions systems aboard modern fighter aircraft are handling much, much more of a routine and mundane aspects of flying an airplane and allowing the pilot to concentrate much more of his brain power on employing weapons, operating mission systems and concentration on the battle. In contrast, the jet and the computer hardware and software aboard are handling most of the aspects of flying the aircraft and translating all sensory influence and systems information. It can then display this onto easy to read, and understand, minimalist cockpit displays, which the pilot can call up and can set however he desires when is needed for a particular stage of a flight or mission.

As visible in a 1960s era F-4 cockpit, were computer power technology is nowhere near what it is today, all you could do was display the information, either on analog gauges or crude, monochrome CRT displays. The pilot would have to digest that information and make decisions accordingly. Combat experiences in Vietnam showed that there was only so much brain power. A fighter pilot could be called up under stress and in combat to use. Excessive amounts of systems with simply saturate the individuals, and potentially cause them to overlook critical elements of the fight that could kill them. General Robin Olds once commented that when they fenced in in Vietnam, i.e. crossing over in the enemy territory, that they actually started turning systems off in the F4 because they did more harm than good, and it allowed the pilot to concentrate on the battle better.

The F-18 cockpit is a classic example of lessons learned from the Vietnam conflict. Here computers have made considerable improvements in information crunching and can be used to handle many more tasks aboard. Other technologies, such as multi function displays, head-up displays and HOTAS controllers (a Hornet has about 40 or so buttons on the stick and throttle) helped digest more information and allow the pilot to better command the aircraft and its mission systems with his head out of the cockpit for better SA. Take this one step further with the F-35 cockpit combined with blazing fast computers, all glass touchscreen displays, HMDs, encrypted networking between other friendly assets in the battle space and the aircrews have far more systems and capabilities with much more brainpower available to use them. About 95% of the F-35 pilot’s activity in the cockpit can be concentrated on where he is and other assets are, where the enemy is, what threats are out there, how they are going to coordinate, and use their combine force to destroy them, and what weapons he wants to employ to do so.

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The trend in these modern cockpit designs is to improve flexibility and at the same time decrease cost and complexity. Ultimately you achieve this by moving more functionality to software.

  • Flexibility: A wide screen multi-function display (MDF) as seen in the F 35, can be easily partioned to display several displays at the same time, or use a 1/3 to 2/3 screen, or half half, etc. Additionally you do not loose the space taken by the frames if several displays are used as in the F/A 18. Therefore you can display more information. Also if you want to integrate new functionalites, a MFD easily offers this flexibility. Last but not least, the pilot can easily reconfigure his display to fit his/her needs however he/she wants, which also improves usability.
  • Decreased cost: It might be cheaper to have one singular screen which offers all functionality, then having to produce and maintain several specialized buttons and displays. Again this moves more complexity to software which might be cheaper then maintaining more hardware.
  • Complexity: Again, less hardware to maintain. If you want to integrate new buttons, all you have to do is to update the software. Of course in the aviation world this presents its own challenges, but is still easier then integrating new buttons or so.

Concerning the HOTAS buttons, this is to steer as many functions with your hands on stick and throttle. This way, the pilot does not have to take his/her hands off the stick when controlling functions of the airplane therefore posing less of a distraction to the pilot.

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